Statelessness: They say it like it's a bad thing

Statelessness: They say it like it's a bad thing


Tuesday, January 06, 2015

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LAST November, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a 10-year drive to end "the scourge of statelessness". In December, UNHCR Senior Regional Protection Officer on Statelessness Emmanuelle Mitte appealed to journalists (in West Africa and worldwide) to promote the effort, citing the press's "responsibility to carry out advocacy and sensitisation on the issue". But the campaign, starting with its name "I Belong", tells us more than its creators and promoters might want us to know about the relationship of the UN, political governments, and those they govern.

In truth, the United Nations might be more accurately called the United States, were the name not already taken. It is dedicated to the preservation of a system not quite 400 years old, and still not quite globally adopted: The Westphalian system, which replaced the old feudal ties of dynastic family rule and shifting servile fealties to specific individuals with "States" defined by fixed geographical borders ("national sovereignty") and sporting bureaucracies which survived individual (and increasingly titular) rulers to maintain continuity of political government within said borders.

To put it a different way, the Westphalian system evolved feudal serfdom into a more sustainable model of chattel ownership. Serfs belonged to specific, mortal lords. Citizens belong to immortal bureaucracies. The UN's "I Belong" campaign aims to herd missing slaves back into their pens.

Fortunately, the effort is almost certainly in vain.

Over the last 20 years or so, the Westphalian ruling class has found itself increasingly beset by the existence and efficacy -- in everything from unregulated commerce to irrepressible warfare -- of "non-State entities" which recognise neither the legitimacy of its bureaucratic rulers nor the sanctity of its borders and "sovereignties". While it's not a given that all those non-State entities represent an attractive alternative to the Westphalian model (I doubt most of us want to live under the rule of a "global caliphate," for example), it's clear that the model is in tatters. And history is unlikely to run backward on its behalf.

Fortunately for most of us -- and unfortunately for projects like "I Belong" -- a funny thing happened on America's way to permanent primacy in a post-WWII Westphalian hegemony: A system designed to preserve the pinnacle exemplar of Westphalian nation-statism by maintaining bureaucratic and military continuity even under the pressures of nuclear attack got released into the wild.

The Internet has enabled billions to uncouple themselves from national loyalties in various and significant ways. Hierarchical political government rooted in geography is giving way to self-organised horizontal networking rooted in mutual personal interest. Economic systems crafted by and for the State's ruling class are coming apart at the seams and leaking tax revenues at the joints as more and more of us trade without State permission and without paying the tolls the State demands.

The Internet and other technologies continue to eat at the State's connective tissues. Technologically reduced capital requirements make it possible to locally manufacture goods once centrally produced by State-boosted industries and distributed over the State's ubiquitous road networks -- making regulation and tax collection increasingly difficult. Cellphones with Wi-Fi capabilities and "mesh networking" apps allow non-State networks to continue operations when the State pulls the plug on its centrally controlled utilities.

"I Belong" focuses on bringing a few million refugees back under ownership of the States which made them refugees in the first place. But many more millions than that have consciously -- and billions unconsciously -- begun the process of escaping those states, becoming stateless by choice.

For two centuries, anarchists have treated the State as a cancer. Maybe we were wrong. Maybe it was actually a viable organ. But if so, it is now a vestigial organ -- humanity's appendix, if you will. It serves no worthwhile purpose and is best surgically excised and thrown in the trash before it ruptures and kills humanity with the poisons it has stored up for 400 years.

Thomas L Knapp is senior news analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society (

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